Politics, with a dollop of even-oddium sulphate

Shekhar Gupta
Sunday, 12 November 2017

We used to have a hirsute Lhasa terrier called Teddy. It never had to look for food, hunt or harm anyone except books on lower shelves. Until one evening, he noticed a mouse stray into the kitchen. He chased it and the panicky mouse got trapped behind the cooking gas cylinder.

We used to have a hirsute Lhasa terrier called Teddy. It never had to look for food, hunt or harm anyone except books on lower shelves. Until one evening, he noticed a mouse stray into the kitchen. He chased it and the panicky mouse got trapped behind the cooking gas cylinder.

The dog caught it briefly, its first prey. He let it go in panic and, we believe, some embarrassment. But it endured with our family, first as a ploy and then as a story. A ploy to entertain our guests: just shout ‘chooha’ and the hunter would go charging, straight behind the gas cylinder. He had found it once there, so it must only be there. It’s a story because whenever somebody shows the same dumb, sorry dog lovers, innocent, instincts, we say now, don’t go looking for the mouse where you found it once.

Fact is, Delhi’s AAP government wasn’t even successful the first time in its own kitchen-mouse chase when it threw its odd-even scheme at us. All data showed it made an insignificant difference to air quality. But it was a political success. It made a lot of Delhi citizens, especially the well-heeled (mostly multiple-vehicle owners) believe at least something was being done and that they were a part of it. In any case, as we noted in another National Interest over the ridiculous cracker-sale ban on Diwali this year, this answered that important sentiment, Mujhe Kuchh Karna Hai (I have to do something about it).

Friendly TV channels rose in support, breathlessly hailing this as a great public-private partnership that would improve our air and also bring sponsorship for non-stop coverage from the hybrid car and indoor air-purifier makers, both of which only the well-to-do can afford. Two winters later, the AAP government is back chasing the mouse in the kitchen.
AAP has emerged as India’s most populist party, giving Mamata Banerjee competition. But unlike the usual populist-dictators’ parties, it has a diversity of opinion and wisdom. On the downside, it came this week from its leader in Punjab, Sukhpal Singh Khaira, who presided over a stubble-burning ‘event’ and asserted that farmers will continue to do so unless they are paid Rs 5,000 a month to pay for clearing stubble manually. This was perfectly timed with his party supremo in Delhi seeking a meeting with Capt. Amarinder Singh, on Twitter. You can laugh, cry, get furious. Or just reach for that inhaler, swallow your pride with puffs of awful cortisone.

A good question is, is only Delhi’s air polluted? The answer is no, the entire country’s is. So why such obsession with Delhi?

Good question. But the most powerful people in India live here: politicians including the prime minister and environment minister, civil servants including the environment secretary, Supreme Court judges, including those on the environment bench, MPs, diplomats and dadas of the media. If they can’t deal with their own problem, what chance do the rest of the country have, with its foul air, dying rivers, frothing lakes and crumbling mountains?

It isn’t as if all of them aren’t trying, but by searching for that mouse in the kitchen, like our little Lhasa. Except now that the joke is on us. There is the venerable National Green Tribunal (NGT). Given the emotion, effort, and fury, it is investing in Delhi, I respectfully submit it should be renamed the National Capital Territory Green Tribunal.

It issues prolific firmans that would make Tughlaq so proud, I’d suggest it is given a Bhawan on the Lutyens’ road named after him. Its latest is to shift Delhi’s tiny public protest zone from Jantar Mantar to someplace far, so their noise won’t bother the rulers. You would’ve thought the very idea of the protest was that the rulers should hear you. Nevertheless, who’s to argue with imperial authority in this city, particularly when well-intentioned.

Ranting is no solution, but there are some if we are all willing to forego the two headline-rich months beginning Diwali and focus on the remaining 10. First, we must acknowledge that there is a problem. Second, that everything everybody tried to do, politicians, judges, activists, isn’t working. Third, no name-calling or politicking.

Then turn to facts. The first is a smog map of the north tweeted by AAP leader Atishi Marlena that shows it isn’t just a Delhi problem; the entire region is choking. It’s the first sensible statement in this smog season, the reason why we said AAP also packs great diversity in wisdom levels — this being on the upside. If you extend the map further west, large parts of Pakistan will look the same.

OK, it may be challenging doing something with Pakistan until the Kashmir problem is solved. But plead with the prime minister to call a meeting of the four chief ministers involved: Delhi, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Forget impolite name-calling and buck-passing. Find a way of compensating the farmers for not burning paddy stubble.

The hundreds of crores being collected as diesel and truck entry cess on the orders of the Supreme Court and NGT and sitting some place could be diverted here with top-ups from the Delhi and central governments. Fighting Delhi’s smog with tamashas in Delhi is as delusional as curing a deadly bronchial spasm by sucking a mint or lighting an agarbatti, even one from Patanjali or some such.

Then look at the SC-mandated EPCA’s reports. They show that 38 per cent of Delhi’s smog comes from dust. Forget idiotic ideas like aerial spraying or using the fire brigade to give trees a shower. Force the Delhi government to buy the vacuum-sweeping machines it promised in 2016 for its roads. And then replace at least the old DTC buses, dying by the hundreds as not one has been bought for seven years.

The government doesn’t have cash? They should have thought twice before doling out free and subsidised power and water to buy Delhi’s voters.

These steps won’t have the sex-appeal of odd-even or bans. But these will help. All else being done every smog-season isn’t just a joke. It is an atrocity, collectively serving crores of us a dose of mass deceit.

What shall we call it? Since journalism lacks the creative freedom of cinema, and I can’t borrow the ‘C’ word Vishal Bhardwaj got Vidya Balan to use with panache in Ishqiya. Let us just call it: Even-Oddium Sulphate.

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